Arts & Events » Arts and Culture

theater: Listening to Black Voices

Black theater finds a voice in Richmond at the second annual Black Theatre Festival.


"It was extremely difficult because it is something new," he said. "In the last ten years, black theater has not been traditional in Richmond ... except for professional theater. There are some white theaters [that] do major black productions a few times per year, but there is little more than that."

The event was sponsored by Jazz Actors Theatre, McClintock's theater group, private donations and sponsorships from Ukrop's, the venues showing the performances and other sponsors. The biggest challenge with the festival, however, was finding talented local actors committed to the project. So in addition to Richmond talent, actors were brought in from New York and Philadelphia too, he said.

Demetrius "Motion" Bullock is one of the actors recruited from New York City. A Bronx native, he said he has been acting for the past three years, appearing in off-Broadway productions. Bullock said he arrived in Richmond on July 6, with less than a month to learn lines and choreography before the opening night for two productions.

"We practiced almost every day from the [day] I got here until the performance," he said, pulling 12-hour days that started at 7 in the morning and ended the same time in the evening.

Bullock was practicing for "Ndangered 2002," a production with skits that focus on issues facing African-American males, including incarceration, dealing with the absence of a father, peer pressure, contracting STDs and racism. He was also working on "The Rose That Grew From Concrete," which was also performed last year and is a production based on the writings of the late Tupac Shakur. This year, McClintock said he made the production more family-oriented.

"'The Rose' shows another side of Tupac, which is important for people to see — the side that we saw before he died," he said.

On opening night for "The Rose," the Firehouse Theatre on West Broad Street was filled nearly to capacity as the show began. Six women from Richmond's City Dance Troupe and five male actors combined a mix of modern and African dance with poetry, hip-hop-themed soliloquies and some R&B musical selections to present a side of Shakur the public has only become acquainted with in the aftermath of the young rap star's death. Accompanied by a two-man percussion and guitar ensemble that played Tupac's selections, the production created an experience that carried the audience through a roller coaster of emotions from happiness and excitement to fear and loneliness, and at the end, peace. The final dance routine combined modern dance and ballet by five couples that created an elegant closing sequence.

"The Rose's" last performance in Richmond was Saturday, and McClintock plans to travel along the East Coast with the group, starting with New Jersey. But plans have not been finalized yet.

The festival's other two productions were theatrical performances. "The Old Settler," a play about two lonely middle-aged women who are enlivened when a handsome stranger comes through town, and "Before It Hits Home," a play about a middle-class African-American family dealing with AIDS.

McClintock said he has been acting since age 20. He moved to Richmond in 1991 after having his own studio for more than 30 years in New York. One of the reasons he moved, he said, was that the decline in funding for black theaters led to fewer black theaters and production companies. And as he got older, he said, the pace of city life became a bit much for him.

"But don't get me wrong — Richmond is still a dog race," he said, because there is little support for black theater here, as well.

Rodney Williams, choreographer for the City Dance Troupe and "The Rose," said producing black theater in Richmond is a struggle, but there is strong potential for growth here.

"It's always hard — the arts have to struggle for a voice," he said. "But I thank God for people like Ernie McClintock, because it takes someone like him, someone with persistence and dedication to the craft, to can make it work." S

Add a comment